Off the beaten track
Memories of boat people
By Andrew Sia
EXPLORING Pulau Bidong in Terengganu is like rummaging
through the flotsam of the Vietnam War. For here, in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, a
camp was established to accommodate the "boat people"--the waves of refugees who
braved the high seas and pitiless pirates in rickety, overcrowded boats to flee,
initially, from political persecution and, later, from economic hardship. 252,452 refugees
passed through this little 260ha island until it was closed in 1991.
In those 16 years, a bustling "mini Saigon" developed.
A whole network of Vietnamese sundry shops, tailors, hair salons,
pawn brokers, bakeries and even acupuncturists flourished.
These stone tablets on Pulau Bidong honouring those who died at sea before reaching
Malaysian shores are a poignant reminder of the plight of Vietnamese boat people.
Wheeling and dealing in real estate thrived. Refugees leaving
sold their houses to newcomers for anything from US$20 to US$350 depending on the location
Indeed, though Pulau Bidong was only 20 nautical miles from the
mainland at Kampung Merang, it might as well have been a world away.
The camp was sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) while the Malaysian Red Crescent Society (MRCS) was responsible for
the daily operations.
Refugees worked as labourers or office staff and were paid in
food parcels. This was the "currency", which underpinned the whole
"economy" on the island.
It also facilitated unofficial links with ordinary Malaysians.
Although the island was declared off-limits to locals in 1978, some local fishermen still
managed to smuggle goods to the refugees at vastly inflated prices (a business estimated
at between RM8mil and RM13mil).
Under cover of darkness, the more enterprising Vietnamese used to
swim out (or float out in homemade rafts) to meet the fishermen in the open sea. This was
not without its dangers as some 35 people were reported missing in 1979, for instance.
Given this dramatic backdrop, when Ping Anchorage, a tour
operator in Kuala Terengganu, offered its latest Bidong Plus package, our curiosity
was more than piqued.
As there was no accommodation on the island, chief photographer
Tan Hong Tatt and I had to stay in neighbouring Pulau Redang.
We, and four others who had taken up the package, were more than
entertained by our ever affable Cantonese-speaking tour leader Anwar Abu Bakar, alias Ah
Wah (Anwar is transliterated as onn wah in that dialect).
Our group departed from Merang via the "adventure
jetty"--a good old fishermen's construction of planks and poles in a picturesque
river--as the multi-million ringgit wharves and artificial wavebreakers were closed yet
again due to siltation.
The humble start belied the power of the speedboats. We
practically flew over the waves like one of those Mild Seven Seafarers Club ads, sea
spray, prancing boat and all.
Even folks who can't swim can go snorkelling.
"It's like a roller coaster. This is much better than flying
in straight to Redang," enthused Albert Kan, a sales executive.
We arrived at the Redang Reef Resort in half an hour flat.
Despite my having gone to the east coast countless times, the stunningly translucent
aquamarine waters here did not fail to delight.
Creature comforts may not be of the five-star variety but the
essentials are all in place. Apart from air-conditioned rooms and three meals a day,
self-service bread and Milo are available 24 hours a day. The latter will be of
inestimable value for those sleepless city folk who wish to partake of nocturnal crab
catching, star gazing or, more down-to-earth, Astro channel surfing.
Those who can't seem to get away from it all will, undoubtedly,
be impressed that mobile phone numbers beginning with 010, 011, 012, 018 and 019 have
reception on this part of the island.
After checking in, it was time for us to speedboat over to
Bidong. (Normally, those who take up this three day/two night package will have a full day
there on the second day.) We reached the island within 15 minutes and, from a distance, it
looked exactly like any one of Terengganu's other offshore islands.
It was only when we pulled up close that we saw the ruins of the
once bustling camp. The wooden jetty was in its last throes while most of the refugee
shacks had been overwhelmed with secondary jungle.
A few Rela (Home Guard) members were on duty, their quarters the
only signs of habitation on the island.
Being from a newspaper, we were not allowed to take pictures of
anything while on the island. Which top secret nuclear research lab were they guarding so
Apparently, it seems that a previous magazine, one suspects an
irredeemably evil foreign one, had been there some time ago and written an adverse story
about camp conditions.
Nevertheless, the Rela members were very
accommodating--"we're just doing our job"--and took us around for a tour of the
We filed past the former clinic and generator room. Old
Vietnamese signboards were still on display, advising the proper procedures for machinery
handling to long departed refugee workers.
But the most melancholic part of Pulau Bidong was the memorial
outside the church.
Here, on a mass of cement shaped as a ship's bow, dozens of stone
tablets commemorate all those who didn't make it over.
Though refugees could reach Terengganu within days, the slow
overcrowded boats were often attacked by pirates who, in ascending order of severity,
robbed, raped, maimed and killed.
The language on the plaques is Vietnamese, but one common word
makes it through the cultural barrier, "Maria".
Indeed, outside of the Philippines, Vietnam was Asia's most
Catholic country due to the French colonial experience.
The zinc sheeted wooden frame church is, quite remarkably, still
standing and rows of empty pews continue to gaze lifelessly towards the front pulpit.
Next to the church is a Vietnamese temple with the remnants of a
Kwan Yin deity outside.
Inside, signs in Vietnamese and Chinese tell the story of
political persecution back home and the perilous journey here (fortunately, a fellow
traveller could read one of the signs).
They also thanked the Malaysian government, the UNHCR (United
Nations High Commission for Refugees) and the MRCS (Malaysian Red Crescent Society) for
help in constructing the temple.
Since Malaysia "recovered" the island in 1991, various
development plans have been bandied about.
In 1992, a special redevelopment committee set up under Dr Abdul
Wahab Ngah proposed the preservation of the historical sites and buildings "should
any boat people like to come back to see their past".
Then in 1996, Datuk Aziz Awang, the former chairman of the State
Tourism, Arts and Culture Committee revealed that there were plans to build a RM100mil
five-star hotel there.
And last August, Mentri Besar Tan Sri Wan Mokhtar Ahmad announced
plans to build a museum there, after the economy recovers, in memory of the boat people.
Most of the buildings here were built of wood, with many
appearing to be on the verge of collapse or hopelessly overgrown, so any
"museum" would have to be entirely reconstructed.
It can thus be argued that it would be best to see Pulau Bidong
now, to get a feel of the original refugee camp, before development dolls the place up
We returned to Pulau Redang by late evening, mystified and
reminded of our own mortality.
The next two days were spent living the good life. There were
snorkelling trips to the Redang Marine Park headquarters and to a nearby bay. Though there
was much dead coral, there were also many good patches which made for fine viewing of
Our chief photographer, who went snorkelling for the first time
in his life, was ebullient:
"I was amazed with the huge sek pan at the marine
park. And right next to the resort, we can see so many colourful fish. We don't even have
to walk two metres.
"I'm like an immigrant fresh off the ship from China. Never
gone snorkelling before. The last time in Tioman, I wanted to try but the tour guide said
if I cannot really swim I shouldn't.
"But here the staff helped me. I was given a tyre tube and
they brought me along to see the fish. I think that kind of service is important."
Jasmine Tan, a secretary, liked the resort because of the
excellent "homecooked" food and because its location at the end of Pasir Panjang
beach offered more privacy.
"I've been to Langkawi and Tioman before but I can say that
Redang is the best because the water is clearer."
For further information call Ping Anchorage at 09-626
1999. Star Publications (Malaysia) Bhd. (Co No. 10894-D)
All rights reserved.